Back to the past? Yes indeed – after his best selling novel Lubiewo Michał Witkowski has returned to the themes featured in his first set of short stories, Copyright. The stories in the first part of this new collection, Photoprint Wallpaper, are about the era of Witkowski’s childhood, when the socialist world was in decline (the action takes place in communist Poland, East Germany and the USSR), already doomed to collapse and chaos, and a ludicrously sad place to be. The stories in the second part portray the new Poland and its rank consumerism, as well as the poverty that only naïve, tacky dreams of a better life make bearable. However, in Photoprint Wallpaper the rehashed themes have been given new spice, mainly because Witkowski has gained strength as a writer since his debut. He has elaborated his distinctive style and is capable of telling stories that keep the reader’s attention riveted. Even though he is always writing about himself, placing himself at the centre of the story, Witkowski never loses track of the outside world. While writing about personal myths, he also describes the broad range of illusions people create for everyday use – the “photoprint wallpapers” of the title, thanks to which dreary reality acquires some colour – never mind if it’s garish and kitsch. What matters is that once hidden behind photoprint wallpaper the world is more bearable. And that is what Witkowski’s new book is about.
The life of Beata the buffet girl was like the coffee she served on plastic trays with views of the mountains. Inside there was something boiling and bubbling, a reviving shot of caffeine – what the hell, the bar served shit strong coffee, but the whole thing lost its kick because there was up to a centimetre of space under the lid covering it. Maybe as time went by Beata instinctively poured less and less water into the glasses, so the customers finally started complaining, accusing her of overdoing the thrift. “Don’t you know it’s more refined like that?” she’d say in surprise, with never a thought of topping it up. “Only yobs fill it right up,” she’d add mentally. “Anyway, there’s a book of requests and complaints hanging by the buffet”. They’d dutifully get up and head for the buffet, but not to record a complaint, just to order another coffee. Beata would go back behind the bar, and while there were no new orders, she’d think her own thoughts. “I was born here and I’ll die here, no bones about it,” she’d tell herself calmly, and set about painting her nails, but then she’d suddenly start to quiver, lean her brow against the beer tap in a helpless state, and rock with dry, soundless weeping. And yet she was an excellent buffet girl. She was better suited to this job than the other local girls because she loved the night life. Whenever the band played a sorrowful tune, she could feel herself bursting with character, and took a drop of sweet liquor on the sly. On such nights she felt sure that any day, maybe right this minute, any second now a Strange Man might drive up and place an order for champagne. “But what’ll I give him? There’s nothing but coffee, tea, scones and beer here,” she thought, then immediately corrected herself, promising to order some scones, yes, scones for sure, spécialité de la maison.
That night Beata had an evening shift and went home at two.
And the musicians – one fair-haired, one black-haired, and the third of indeterminate hair colour – are blasting away as if they want to wring out their souls like wet dishrags, blasting away into the cold night air and rakishly twirling their moustaches. And the fair one on the cymbals seems to be sprinkling delicate diamond snowflakes over everything. And the dark one with the accordion plays wistful romances like a Russian. But the last one, who lacks a definite hair colour, drills away on the fiddle, drilling into the night and sending out an echo, and now the couples are dancing, their eyes fixed on each other, until Beata dares not walk across the parquet for fear of jostling someone, not least with tomato soup on her tray. In short, time is at a standstill – please let this moment last, may we dance like this for ever, may the world go on turning, may the fiddle keep on playing. May your cigarette keep smouldering in your fluent fingers as they rest on your partner’s arm, may the ash fall gently to the parquet floor and instantly be crushed under an elegant high-heeled shoe; may it all flow down your silky dress, as if the music were an expert masseur, flow down onto the floor with the ash, with the stress, as if you had wept and wept for ages, as if you were a child again, and your mother were stroking your head, but it’s not your mother, it’s those whirling, swirling sounds, that out-of-fashion, pre-war music. There’s a roar of applause, and now the black one, the white one, and above all the one with the doubtful hair colour are each getting a double vodka on the house, and they’re knocking them back in elation, drinking to all the buffet bars, knocking them back because they’re sure that’s what art is all about, making people feel emotional, squeezing their all out of them, not just money – it’s virtually metaphysics. Or else – to hell with it! It’s pure metaphysics and nothing else.
But it doesn’t work on the brats – it’s all right for their parents, but they like another kind of music: the violent crash of a bottle smashed in the park, crude noises heard at the station, at the cassette stall next to the Non-Stop Bar, later repeated in a cheap walkman, the soothing splash of beer pouring down their throats and the disturbing crash of a lighter. Also the rasp of spit landing on asphalt. Red from the cold and the shoddy tanning salon, their girlfriends zip their pink jackets up to the chin and put their hoods up. Hopping from foot to foot they glare at the people coming their way. At the last minute the brats decide to give way, but they only move a little bit, so the strangers have to brush against them.
Not quite so amused now, the whole company, had ended up in the vestibule where there’s a cloakroom and a toilet, as well as a counter of unknown purpose with a vase of artificial flowers on it. Two fabulously colourful automats hold sway in the hall.
Auto-auto-automats! Behind a large horizontal pane of thick glass tattooed with fantasy landscapes lives a bright blue princess – a mermaid whose yellow star-shaped eyes light up now and then. A dragon swallows the balls that roll down a neat ramp into his jaws, then the message GAME OVER flashes on in raised Gothic lettering the colours of an electronic rainbow, all against an undulating landscape full of red and rust-coloured volcanoes, which the wonderful, silvery balls can fall into at any moment. Many a young brat who plays the automats non-stop has dreamed of freeing the princess from behind the thick glass, usually wet with beer standing on it.
The moon was hooked on a mountain top, cats were casting shadows half the length of the street, smoke streams were rising from the chimneys of the tenements that stretched all the way to the locked-up “Ladybird” – it all made the town look like a child’s drawing, where any psychologist would find evidence of tough housing conditions and a broken family. It smelled of coke, coal and something else burning, scraps of snow, cat piss and alcohol, and the cold intensified all these smells, harshly making them force all their flavours up your nose.
The brats had moved into the atrium with the automats. They soon began to attack the music from the hall with electronic explosions and the noise of shooting from the latest laser weapons. But what was now occurring in the two rooms at the Chestnuts was immune to anything from outside. In the bigger hall, where there was dancing and where the band stood on a wooden podium, a newly arrived company were lounging at the only free table. Crammed with tables and full of smoke, the second hall was hidden behind a partition wall made of bamboo canes. This smaller room attracted the worst kind of drunks, women with the eyes of old tarts and solitary, transient young men with the wild look of Raskolnikov. One of them, in a black leather jacket, with black hair and black eyes, aged about twenty-six, was sitting squashed into the very corner between a flowerpot containing a large, madly overgrown plant and a radiator boxed in with wooden panelling. The young man was drinking coffee, smoking a cigarette and making some notes in an ordinary school exercise book with a car on the cover. A fat drunk sitting opposite him, definitely a local, suddenly started making signs at him. This involved bending backwards and forwards, winking and snapping his thumb and forefinger together, as if he were calling the waiter.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones